Title: Tread Softly
Day/Theme: 7th August/"You would think that she is walking upon eggs and green bottles"
Millie was in the library, engrossed in her heroine's latest efforts, when Christopher burst in, waving a soggy paper bag.
"Oh! There you are," he said, as if she had personally affronted him by not being where he expected. "Come and have a look at these, I brought them back from Series Five." He upended the bag onto the table and a grotty mixture of wet sand and shells clattered onto the varnished surface. Millie picked up one of the shells; it had a curious shape and glittered strangely in the morning sun.
"They're very pretty," she said cautiously.
"Oh, I suppose they're quite nice." Christopher turned away; whatever goal he'd had in mind must have been either achieved or soundly defeated. "Do what you want with them, I don't care."
He stalked out of the library like an insulted cat, his dignity on view for all to see. Someone must have been teasing him. Millie put her book to one side and bent over the shells again, sifting through them with her fingers. She wondered why Christopher had given them to her; what on earth did he expect her to do with them?
Still. They were quite nice.
In the cupboard of her bedside table at school, Millie had built up a small collection of bizarre goods. There were the shells, of course, and some strings of red beads that glowed when you touched them. There were dried flowers pressed between the pages of a diary with a jade clasp and a little pot of unguent that Christopher confessed was from a bazaar in Series Ten. Whenever she felt homesick, Millie would take it out and smell the incense of the temple again.
There was a geode from Series Two that pulsed with unfamiliar magic: it was for protection, Christopher had claimed and Millie had rolled her eyes. It had eldritch symbols carved into it and if it hadn't been for the magic, Millie would have ragged him for buying a gimcrack novelty item.
The objects reminded her of the Castle when she was too far away for comfort and when she wrote to Christopher on the second Sunday evening of term, she told him so. The reply was a week in coming and when it arrived it was unusually stilted for Christopher and said only that he was glad they made her feel better.
"Of all the worlds, I think Series Five has the best glassblowers," Christopher mused, examining the emerald scent bottle. Millie had persuaded him not to use the microscope; the last time Christopher had tried it, he'd left a fingerprint on the lens and got into terrible trouble.
"Why?" she asked, since Christopher was clearly dying to show off.
"It's a matter of artistry," he began immediately, putting it down. "Glassblowing to the people there is part of one of their big religions – "
Millie let him talk, taking the bottle from the table and inspecting it. She held it up to the light; it gleamed, lit from within by viridian fire. She looked at Christopher through its translucence: his colour became vivid but his movements warped and slowed as if he were making them through murky water. She shuddered and put it down again. Series Five work, indeed.
" – and they're famous for it in their Switzerland. Or Switzerland equivalent, I can't remember what it's called." Millie nodded. Christopher took this as a cue to go on and drew a deep breath.
It was around Christmas that she became aware that Christopher was obliquely, if effectively, trying to court her. During the holiday, even Gabriel had supped enough of good cheer that he felt justified in smiling. They sat round the dining table, laughing and joking for hours and, at least in Christopher's case, drank a bit more wine that might have been strictly good for them. Millie kissed Conrad's cheek under the mistletoe and turned around in time to witness Christopher's suddenly sober lordly scowl. It was a glare of magnificent proportions, so far as glares went, and when she saw it, something in Millie's head said: "Oh."
Now she knew what motives lay behind the gifts, it all became far more awkward. No matter how off-hand Christopher's attitude ("There's some of that tosh you like in the hall, Millie") or small the present ("They're a chimera's molars, from Series Four"), she seemed unable to stop her face and neck from flushing an unattractive red. Christopher grew more belligerent, not towards her but everyone else, and, recognising that he was on tenterhooks about something or other, they wisely kept out of his way. He quarrelled with Gabriel more frequently, too, and by January Millie was almost relieved to return to school.
"I'm confined to the Castle for a month," Christopher wrote in her first fortnight back. "Gabriel's being an old stick-in-the-mud, as usual. He never lets me do anything on my own." The letter went on to complain about the weather, of all things, and then quickly on about Mordecai's mishap with dragon's blood and rose bushes, as if Christopher were anxious not to be caught being mediocre.
Christopher's letters were less embarrassing than his presence; Millie could even admire the tokens without blushing. As the days warmed and lengthened, winter coming into spring, she began to take them outside to read. Her friends never questioned her, but she had detected a hint of amusement in their eyes.
It was a matter of self-defence when she wrote, "I thought you might like this," and sent along with it One Hundred and One Things a Boy Can Do, a century old if it were a day, and full of activities Christopher could gleefully adapt for his abilities to try out on Gabriel. The scribbled thank-you note was swiftly followed by two thick screeds detailing Christopher's diabolical schemes. If Millie, scanning the pages eagerly, felt a pang of remorse, she never committed it to ink and paper.
The Easter hols came and went in a flash. Christopher had been gone for most of it, sorting out a war in another world. It was good practice, he said, and much to his chagrin it was exactly what he'd been agitating Gabriel for, so he couldn't complain. Millie spent most of her time in the library, reading Millie at Oxford and researching the histories of Christopher's warring countries, just in case.
What with one thing and another, then, she barely saw Christopher, and aside from a hasty goodbye, she didn't speak to him properly until May half-term.
"Gabriel's tied up in Series Three," was the first thing he said as he approached. Around them, the other girls were greeting their families with glad cries and embraces; she and Christopher stood self-consciously in the middle of the courtyard.
"Anything serious?" she inquired, but presumably he would have taken Christopher with him if it had been.
"Nothing too dire," Christopher assured her. "Only tedious and with horribly long hours."
"That's good," she offered, feeling foolish. She went on quickly, "Do you want to watch the tennis? Or the swimming might be fun – " Watching Christopher's face fall, she carried on mercilessly, "the tennis team are excellent this year, though, we should really go and show some support for them."
Christopher's face had relaxed into its nastiest, blankest look of utter horror. Before he could devolve into actual rudeness, Millie added, "Or we could have tea," and laughed at him inside. Christopher would have been terribly offended if she'd shown it.
They found a charming little café off the High Street, a very artsy place, and sipped iced tea on the terrace. Christopher mimicked the other people at the Castle accurately if cruelly, lampooning the latest happenings. He took a gulp of his tea when he'd finished, draining it to the dregs.
"I wasn't going to come down today," he said abruptly and Millie observed that he'd downed the tea like another man might down Dutch courage. His left hand had lain loosely on the table; now it fiddled with the teaspoon. "I mean, I was but I wasn't, if you take my meaning."
It was a rare occasion that Christopher was lost for words and Millie nodded. "Yes," she said.
"I wanted to – " Christopher stopped, replacing the teaspoon in the saucer with a clink. His hand was still tense. "I – " His dark head moved from side to side with all the inarticulate pride of a purebred racehorse and Millie recognised that that was all he could say. She either understood or she didn't.
She found his fingers and twined them with hers. "Yes, Christopher," she said again, because you often had to say things twice before Christopher paid attention to you. She squeezed his hand and they sat there drinking tea until sunset.